Here is the best and here is the worst story of the day. . . . Here is the wrong of the day; here is the injustice that needs to be righted; here is the best editorial; here is a brilliant paragraph; here is a bit of sentimental trash; here is a superb ‘beat’; here is a scandalous ‘fake,’ for which the perpetrator ought to go to Sing Sing; here is a grossly inaccurate and misleading headline; here is an example of crass ignorance of foreign politics; here is something ‘crammed’ from an almanac by a man who does not know the meaning of figures when he sees them. —Joseph Pulitzer, on how to evaluate newspapers, in “The College of Journalism,” The North American Review, May 1904.
In 1960, the faculty of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism found itself talking about putting out a magazine. Many of its members, perhaps all, were hesitant—not just because it was to be a magazine but because it was to be a magazine devoted to criticizing journalism. By and large, journalism schools and journalism professors did not criticize journalism. Indeed, Columbia’s longtime dean, Carl W. Ackerman, had devoted himself to just the opposite—defending the press, even, for example, joining the American Newspaper Publishers Association in opposing legislation to get newspapers to pay a minimum wage.
A new dean, Edward W. Barrett, had taken charge in 1956. A former State Department official and Newsweek editor, he was also, of all things, a dropout from the journalism school’s class of 1933. He soon woke up the school from a long period of stasis, adding new programs, hiring new professors as the budget allowed, and seeing to it that the school got a lot of favorable publicity. He also began to use his speaking dates and periodic reports to assess and even disparage American journalism for shallowness, triviality, and stodginess.
At the time, I was doing odd jobs as Barrett’s assistant, and I noted the healthy reaction to his sallies: considerable praise, a little grumbling. I realized that there was a modicum of press criticism already available, but scattered and sporadic. We could feast on “The Wayward Press” of A. J. Liebling in The New Yorker, of course, and could listen to the critiques on cbs outlets started by the tragically short-lived Don Hollenbeck. There also was Nieman Reports, from the mid-career program at Harvard, and a new media section in the Saturday Review. But there was no nexus, a continuing intake for a flow of criticism from varied sources. I sent the dean a memo proposing something called the “Columbia University Journalism Review.”
The proposal might well have died on the desk of a more cautious dean, but Ed Barrett was adventurous, and saw a glimmer of a way to perform a service for American journalism (whether American journalism liked it or not) and at the same time to add a new dimension to the school of journalism. We soon had the faculty—in those days, a mere handful—chewing on the possibilities and dangers. In summing up, the secretary, Richard T. Baker, proposed a somewhat kind, gentle publication, a friendly voice that might seduce the press into virtue. Maybe not exactly what the dean and I had in mind, but there was consensus enough at least to permit us (even underexperienced as I was, I was designated acting managing editor) to start assembling a trial issue and a staff that was at first minuscule, tiny enough to fit in a former darkroom.
It would be retro-mythologizing if I said we even thought about whether this step would be consistent with the founding vision of the school of journalism. In 1960, the school was forty-eight years old. It had opened in the fall of 1912 under the mandate of an unusual charter—a 1904 essay by the publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who had died in 1911, setting out in detail his vision for the school he had endowed—as a new kind of institution that would not only train but educate students as journalists, to make them not only skillful but thoughtful, ready to play a greater part in the functioning of American democracy and the preservation of the republic.